Utica Comets’ Clarke elevating his game
UTICA — Graeme Clarke is making strides with the Utica Comets.
The 21-year-old Comets’ wing and New Jersey Devils prospect, who is in his third pro season, feels he’s gained more confidence about the same time that the team has grabbed some traction.
For his part, Clarke has formed a consistent trio with linemates Joe Gambardella and center Nolan Stevens in recent weeks. That’s been beneficial, Clarke said.
“Obviously, I’ve got some help from my linemates. I think there has been a lot of chemistry built with Gambardella and Stevens over the last couple weeks. If you look at all of us, we’ve all elevated our games over the last few weeks,” said Clarke, who had 24 points in 52 games last season with Utica. “Obviously, it is nice when the puck goes in the net. Because I felt like I had a bit of a slow start to the season. So, to see it going in now is nice.”
The Comets entered Wednesday’s game at Rochester with wins in six of the last eight games.
Since late November, Clarke has totaled 16 points in his last 13 games and entered Wednesday as the team’s leader in points (21). He’s put himself in the conversation for his first NHL call-up. He knows a call-up will happen if his strong play continues.
Entering Wednesday, Clarke had multi-point outings in three consecutive games. He totaled four goals and two assists in the Comets’ two wins over Cleveland before the holiday break. He had a pair of notable goals in the second period of last Thursday’s 7-5 win that showed off his individual skill. It included one where he forced a turnover in Cleveland’s zone before waiting out the defense for a goal.
The efforts helped earn him the AHL Player of the Week honor Tuesday.
“I think a couple shots started going in and I’m gaining more confidence and playing more minutes,” said Clarke, who noted consistency remains a focus for him. “It is nice to be recognized.”
He said he’s learning from Gambardella, who has provided him tips on little details. Clarke said Gambardella allows him to “play free.”
“He has a lot of confidence in me and we have confidence in each other,” Clarke said.
The pair were involved in a “fluke” sequence during a game Nov. 25 at Charlotte. The pair came off the bench on a quick line change and Gambardella’s skate accidentally cut the side of Clarke’s wrist as both went over the boards onto the ice.
“I didn’t notice right away until I looked down,” said Clarke, who needed five stitches for the cut. “I was really fortunate. He felt bad. … But everything was fine.”
New Jersey made the decision to make “cut sleeves” that protect players’ wrist areas mandatory, as first reported by NHL insider Elliotte Friedman. The sleeves arrived a few days after being cut, Clarke said.
“(The wrist) is the one area that doesn’t have a lot of protection,” Clarke said.
Comets assistant coach Andrew Brewer said Clarke is among the most hard-working players on the team. He’s always looking to improve, Brewer said.
“I think offensively, he’s getting more to the inside, creating more chances and getting to the net. I think that’s starting to pay off. It is getting to those dirty areas on the ice. He’s got a good shot. He’s found ways to get his shot off in dangerous areas,” said Brewer, who works with the forwards and power play unit, which includes Clarke. “Hopefully, he can build on that in the next part of the season. … He worked hard to put himself in the position that he’s in.”
Clarke noted he’s gotten tips from Brewer, whose experience includes being the Toronto Maple Leafs’ video coach.
“I was just asking him about different guys like (Mitch) Marner or (Auston) Matthews … because those are top end guys,” Clarke said. “He’s seen what they do at practice, so I’m always trying to pick his brain.”
Thompson, Wotherspoon recalled
Forward Tyce Thompson and defenseman Tyler Wotherspoon were recalled from Utica, the Devils announced Wednesday morning.
The moves were made after the Devils placed defensemen Ryan Graves and John Marino were placed on injured reserve. Two call-ups were expected after Devils coach Lindy Ruff said both Graves and Marino are “week-to-week” injuries.
Thompson and Wotherspoon have been key players for the Comets as they’ve played top minutes and been part of the special teams.
The 23-year-old Thompson, who has dealt with injuries early in his career, has been noticeable this season while playing with Nolan Foote and Brian Pinho. He has six goals and 13 points in 22 games.
He’s appeared in nine NHL games and fits down the Devils’ lineup in an energy role.
Wotherspoon has been steady on the blue line for Utica while also key on the penalty kill. He fills a role as a seventh defenseman for the Devils. He has appeared in more than 500 games between the AHL and NHL.
He also has two goals and nine points in 23 games with Utica.
The moves left Utica with 13 forwards and six defensemen. It was unclear if Dylan Blujus (undisclosed) was ready to return.
New Jersey also placed forward Andreas Johnsson on waivers Wednesday, according to reports. If he’s not claimed by another team by the afternoon deadline Thursday, he could be assigned to Utica at some point.
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